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Fragrance of Flowercycling

When two childhood friends, Ankit Agarwal and Karan Rastogi, saw flower waste choking water bodies in and around Kanpur, they decided to do something about it. The idea they came up with to clean the mess has today turned into a much-acclaimed, socially responsible enterprise that has created a niche for itself across international markets.

In early 2015, two youngsters from Kanpur set out on a journey to find a solution to the growing menace of flower waste polluting the water bodies around the temples in Kanpur. Devotees would offer flowers at temples, which at the end of the day would find their way to the already polluted Ganga and other water bodies.

Young entrepreneurs Ankit Agarwal and Karan Rastogi sought to do good, which gave birth to an innovative brand – Help Us Green. Today, this barely 21-month-old company has entered the specialised market of organic incense and fertiliser exports and managed to make an impressive start.

The Seed of an Idea

 A visit by a friend from Denmark in 2014 sparked the idea of Help Us Green. The friend suggested that he could do something to help clean the ghats (river banks) along the famous Ganga in Kanpur, which had become extremely polluted with factory and flower waste. Ankit Agarwal shared the idea with his childhood friend, Karan Rastogi, and together, they took up the challenge of coming up with a sustainable business model that would help clean up the waste. The way forward had to be an eco-friendly process of creating a product from waste. After a year of research, Help Us Green launched a range of 100% handmade organic fertilisers (biofertilisers), incense sticks, and dhoop cones that were made from the flower waste collected from the river.

Beating The Odds

Before the beginning of Help Us Green, Ankit Agarwal worked at Symantec, the global cybersecurity giant, while Karan Rastogi, who had graduated from Warwick Business School (UK), came back to India to join his family’s shoe-manufacturing business. The duo were already set on a path to success with their stable careers, yet they felt the need to start their own business to explore uncharted waters. While the unknown seemed exciting for two to-be entrepreneurs, the idea to their family and friends seemed surprising. Even temple authorities were surprised when the duo first approached them to take the flowers to manufacture incense.

The duo set sail to start their business with an initial capital of Rs. 80,000, which was not enough capital to survive in the business world. However, they didn’t lose hope; instead, they let it fuel the fire of their burning desire to do good, and they ended up with innovative ideas to save money. So, they started with packaging with discarded boxes from a local liquor packaging unit. They also made a deal with the owner of the farm they operated from. The deal was to provide two tonnes of compost every month in exchange for using the farm. Additionally, they promised to assist him in getting his farm Ecocert-certified (Ecocert is a French certification for organic and environmentally-friendly agri-products), making it Kanpur’s first Ecocert-certified farm.

Help Us Green began their journey with merely 2 products: Mitti (a vermicompost fertiliser) and Sticks and Stones (incense from flower waste). Although, it may not seem like there is much difference between us and any other company in the environmental sustainability industry, but it couldn’t be further from the truth. We use 17 different waste elements, including coffee residue that we collect from coffee shops, such as Café Coffee Day and Barista in Kanpur, and add it to the vermicompost. We also use waste elements that help boost the fertiliser's NPK (nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium) value. The most important differentiating factor of all is that all our products are Ecocert-certified.

Steadily, the two products gained acceptance in foreign markets. After this, the duo decided to make something for the Indian market as well. They started to produce Yagya – incense sticks made from cow dung. For this particular product, they opted for a more traditional type of packaging; they used a religious image on the packaging. The reason behind this was simple: the majority of the Indians find it hard to throw away something that has an image of a God on it. Additionally, they infused Tulsi (basil) seed cellulose with the packaging cellulose. So, once someone has used our product Yagya, they can simply sow the packaging, water it, and basil saplings will grow from it. Quite an innovative way to reduce packaging waste! Currently, the duo is also working on organic soaps, for which they are awaiting government approvals.

Our Social Responsibility

The company’s current set-up in Kanpur consists of 128 workers alongside groups of men and women who collect flowers and waste to be converted into these products. While rose and marigold flowers are used to make incense sticks, all other biodegradable waste is used for vermicompost. When it comes to incense, disposed of flowers are collected, dried and rolled into incense sticks. They have collected and recycled nearly 435 metric tonnes of flowers from 29 religious sites in and around Kanpur.

Help Us Green is not merely inclined to keep the river Ganga clean and create employment opportunities for people, but we also strive to educate our employees’ children. The duo used to teach the basics, like the alphabet, to children, but it wasn’t motivating enough for our workers. So, they found a solution by letting those who are above 16 years of age start working manual labour jobs like gardeners, masons, etc.

The education and employment initiative for children, which started as a way to win confidence and help the manual scavenger community, has now become a part of the company’s ethos.

Hard Work Paying Off

Since Help Us Green’s start in 2015, we have witnessed impressive growth. In the first year, we earned a revenue of Rs. 63 lakh, out of which  98% was from exports. In the second year (FY 2017), we crossed Rs. 2 crore in sales, and our domestic sales expanded by 10%! Our international clients are limited to Germany and Switzerland for now. We plan to serve more countries once our production increases. 

Impressed with our initiatives, Uttar Pradesh’s Chief Minister, Akhilesh Yadav, reached out to us last year to meet. He promised us two acres of land to set up a processing unit in Varanasi to increase our production. This new unit will be set up and start running in April 2017.

Ankit Agarwal and Karan Rastogi also undertook a pilot project in 2016 in Vijayawada, Andhra Pradesh, during Pushkaralu, a 12-day religious festival on the banks of the Krishna River. While the project was a success, Help Us Green has decided to focus on UP for now as the company currently does not have the bandwidth for the same. 

Expanding Horizons 

During the research process, the duo decided to focus on exports. The demand and acceptance of eco-friendly products were higher in the developed markets; however, this doesn’t mean there are no competitors. The competition has been mainly from Germany, as it has been one of the pioneers of organic and eco-friendly products, but if one is to just look at ‘flower recycling’, Ankit Agarwal believes that their products are unique.

Unlike most new companies, getting a foothold in the export market has been relatively smooth for Help Us Green. With the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and Ecocert certifications in place (and a Fairtrade certification on the way), we have not faced any issues with regulatory guidelines. For Ankit Agarwal, who is a board member of Oikos, a St. Gallen, Switzerland-based international sustainability and education organisation, international contacts came in handy during exports. Kanpur is home to an inland container depot (ICD), and guidance from a local Kanpur-based company in getting an export license made the initial process really smooth.

Ankit Agarwal believes that for a small start-up like Help Us Green, concentrating on exports has more advantages as you need to deal with a fixed number of buyers and don’t have to keep track of multiple issues and requirements simultaneously. Help Us Green currently works with only three international importers.

This, however, doesn’t mean that we are not interested in the domestic market. While we do not have a particular marketing or selling strategy for the domestic market, the products are available for buyers on sites like Flipkart, Snapdeal and Amazon. One can also find their products across the country – from upcycling and eco-friendly store Goli Soda in Chennai to Handmade Hope in Vadodara and e-commerce NGO and social enterprise, Hope Collective in New Delhi.

In The Limelight

In the process of making a mark in global markets, Help Us Green has also received a number of accolades. For a young start-up, we have an impressive line-up of awards to our credit, from the ISB Diya Challenge 2015 to the IIT Indore Kalpavriksha Challenge and the IIT-Kanpur Social Challenge 2015. However, participation and winning aren’t about publicity for the brand. Ankit believes that entering these competitions helps a young start-up like theirs improve upon their products and processes as experienced people from the industry judge these competitions. Their feedback has played a very important role in shaping the company.

Time to Blossom

With the growth in demand, Help Us Green is working on its capacity expansion plans. During Diwali 2016, we received huge orders from companies like Landmark Group and TCS. While the orders were for as many as two lakh boxes, but with our current bandwidth, it would take us nearly a year to manufacture the same. Currently, the ‘flower cycle’ is around 1.5 tonnes of flower waste every day, which we hope can be increased to at least 15 tonnes a day once the Varanasi unit starts its operations. A tenfold increase should be enough to take care of the current demand.

We are also planning to expand to various cities on the banks of the river Ganges, Haridwar, for instance, in the coming days. Other producers are also jumping into the fray, but we are not worried. We get 10 to 15 calls daily from people trying to replicate the model. Agarwal believes that the company has been a game-changer when it comes to managing the problem of flower waste in the country. He believes that it’s a win-win situation if more entrepreneurs come ahead to seize the opportunity. Over the last few years, start-ups like Mumbai-based Green Wave and Lucknow-based Mission Sakshama have entered the domestic recycled flower incense market, while Help Us Green has been making its presence felt in the international domain. It is incredible to see our growth and how much we have inspired people to replicate our model. 

“Exports to EU accounts for 90% of Help us Green’s annual revenue”